James Burns (1846-1923) was a Presbyterian philanthropist, whose wealth derived from his shipping and business activities, including his part in the giant trading firm Burns Philp and Co. Ltd. He became aware that the Presbyterian Church wanted to establish a home for orphaned and destitute children. In 1909 he offered to purchase 45 acres of land in North Parramatta and transfer it to the Church, together with a donation of ₤500. The offer was accepted. Despite the close links with the Presbyterian Church, Burnside was independent and was not controlled by the Church hierarchy. The Burnside Homes were established and maintained entirely by private donations, including from James Burns' estate.
The first home, No 1 Cottage, or 'Blairgowrie', was opened on 17 June 1911 by Lady Dudley, wife of the Governor General. Within 12 years, there were 14 homes on the North Parramatta site, caring for more than 500 children in cottage-style accommodation. Burnside had its own school with a gymnasium and swimming pool, a hall, a hospital, playing fields, and a farm, dairy and vegetable garden. There was also staff accommodation.
The cottage homes established at Burnside were unique in the early twentieth century. Most were designed to care for around 30 children in each home, which was considered to be a model for child care. The Board of Directors was receptive to innovations in child care, and Burnside was considered to offer a very high standard of care.
In 1921, Burnside Presbyterian Orphan Homes were granted 5 shillings per week for every orphan in its care by the NSW Government. This allowance was extended to a range of private institutions that cared for children.
In 1922, Burnside became involved in child and youth migration. 'Reid Home', bestowed by Mr and Mrs Andrew Reid, was built to house Scottish war orphans but as few such children could be found, instead was home to 22 Irish Protestant children, who arrived in December.
Although Burnside Homes were called 'orphan homes', few of the children were actual orphans, in the sense of having lost both parents. Children were usually committed to the homes because of poverty, family breakdown, illness and hardship. Parents were expected to pay fees to maintain their children and were allowed to maintain contact, although this was limited to set visiting hours, on rare Sundays. This separation was heartbreaking for children and their parents.
'We were Burnie Kids', a film made by Burnside in the period 1937-1940 to promote its work, depicts a typical (though made-up) family seeking help from Burnside. The made-up family has a father dying from war service, a mother exhausted by working and caring and live in squalid, dark accommodation in inner-city Sydney. When the father dies, the mother collapses and, reluctantly, agrees to her children being taken to Burnside by the Presbyterian minister. The arrival at Burnside, where the children walk through the great sandstone gates on Pennant Hills Road and join hundreds of other children playing in the open air, is shown as a happy ending for the children, and the film goes on to show children at school, in their dormitories and enjoying living, working and playing on the spacious grounds. The film is idealistic, but is truthful in that many families chose Burnside for their children during hard times. Although never ideal, Burnside was rather less bleak than many other children's institutions at this time.
During World War II (1942-1945) the children and teachers of Burnside were evacuated to Springwood, to ensure the safety of the children and free up the land for the war effort. The farm and buildings at North Parramatta were used by the Australian Army throughout the war, and children did not return until 1945.
Burnside Presbyterian Orphan Homes changed its name to Burnside Presbyterian Homes for Children in 1955, in recognition of the fact that most children in the home were not orphans.
13 June 2017
Cite this: https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/guide/nsw/NE00251
First published by the Find & Connect Web Resource Project for the Commonwealth of Australia, 2011
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